The Pleasures and Punishments of Reading Franz Kafka


Best of 2020

We’re away until January 4, but we’re reposting some of our favorite pieces from 2020. Enjoy your holiday!

Franz Kafka. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Reading the work of Franz Kafka is a pleasure, whose punishment is this: writing about it, too.

In Kafka, no honor comes without suffering, and no suffering goes unhonored.

Being asked to write about Kafka is like being asked to describe the Great Wall of China by someone who’s standing just next to it. The only honest thing to do is point.

Once, a student approached Rabbi Shalom of Belz and asked, “What is required in order to live a decent life? How do I know what charity is? What lovingkindness is? How can I tell if I’ve ever been in the presence of God’s mercy?” And so on. The Rabbi stood and was silent and let the student talk until the student was all talked out. And even then the Rabbi kept standing in silence, which was—abracadabra—the answer.

Having to explain the meaning of something that to you is utterly plain and obvious is like having to explain the meaning of someone. Providing such an explanation is impossible and so, a variety of torture. One of the lighter varieties, to be sure, but torture nonetheless. It is a job not for a fan, or even for a critic, but for a self-hating crazy person.